Manatee commissioners to look at funding health care access programs

cnudi@bradenton.comDecember 4, 2012 

BRADENTON -- By 2015, funds to help uninsured Manatee County residents get access to health care will be depleted.

That was one of the facts Manatee County commissioners heard Tuesday during a workshop on the status of a committee of community leaders looking into how to maintain a healthy health care industry.

Brenda Rogers, director of the county community services department, told commissioners that the fund established in 2008, with the dissolution of another health care fund, to pay for emergency room costs for uninsured and indigent patients is almost out of money.

The charts and graphs Rogers presented showed that if spending continues at the current rate, it is projected the fund will be used up by 2015, and if the commission wanted to continue the program, it would need to come up with other funding sources.

The community committee, the Manatee County Health Care Alliance, will offer options to the commissioners in February on finding other revenue streams to continue the current programs or to restructure the whole system.

The alliance was formed as a result of a 2010 Manatee Chamber of Commerce study on the state of health care in Manatee County, after the county Health Care Access Task Force looked into funding health care for indigent residents in 2008.

Rogers reported on the status of the 13 recommendations of the task force.

The task force found people without access to health care insurance are using the more expensive hospital emergency room services for problems better handled at a walk-in clinic or by a family physician.

These emergency room visits have placed a financial burden on the hospitals in the county, even though Manatee County has been reimbursing some of the costs with a fund created from the proceeds of the county-owned hospital in 1984.

The fund had about $26.5 million budgeted for 2012 expenses, and with annual expenses of about $9.5 million, the monies will be depleted by 2015.

County Administrator Ed Hunzeker said his staff has been exploring how to reduce the costs to the county and to find an alternative funding source.

"It's cheaper to treat a cold in a clinic," Hunzeker

said, "than treat pneumonia in the ER."

Commissioner Larry Bustle said the charts indicate the rate of spending is increasing.

Hunzeker said that was partly because of the economy.

"More and more people are unemployed and employers are dropping health care benefits," he said.

Another problem the task force highlighted was the shortage of doctors in the community.

It recommended establishing a physician residency program at a hospital.

Rogers reported that Manatee Memorial Hospital now has 20 participants in its residency program and plan to fill another 44 slots by next summer.

Her report also outlined what other counties are doing to improve health care delivery and how they pay for it.

Hillsborough County has a 0.5 percent sales tax dedicated to their system, while Pinellas County uses property taxes from the general fund.

Because Sarasota County owns a hospital, it created a taxing district that levies a property tax.

"It's important to have a healthy community to get people to move to Manatee County," Commissioner Carol Whitmore said after the workshop. "We can't attract companies and create jobs if you don't."

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